Order my new book: The Only Sales Guide You'll Ever Need

Sales Effectiveness: Autonomy vs. Discipline

The idea for this post has been on my mind for months but has never made the editorial calendar until yesterday. Yesterday, my friend Jim Keenan wrote a post about his experience with his electric company. I won’t retell the story here; I’ll let Jim tell his story.

But here is short summation. The salesperson calls Jim and sticks to the script. Jim tries to help her be creative with her responses to his objections. She sticks to the script and loses the opportunity to sell Jim.

Jim is a sweetheart for helping her try!

Here’s my riff on Jim’s post.

Sales Effectiveness is Discipline

Sales effectiveness is a tricky balance between autonomy and discipline. This is what the argument about whether sales is an art or a science is really about. The discipline of a sales process, scripts, and product knowledge can be fairly easily taught. That’s the science part.

We can teach a salesperson the psychology of buying, we can teach them to ask the questions that elicit dissatisfaction, we can provide them with the scripts to attempt to overcome objections and resolve concerns, and, if we are really lucky, we can convince them to ask for commitments.

Much of the time, we can teach people to produce pretty good sales results by exercising the discipline of sales. Some will even distinguish themselves and pull themselves out of the pack. The science is the application of the fundamentals through a well-thought sales process with well-developed tools.

Sales Effectiveness is Autonomy

The reason it is so hard to replicate the performance of the top 20% is because it is far more difficult to teach the art. Some people are born with the ability to develop rapport very easily and to very easily intuit what they can do to move a deal forward, even when they are way outside of the process, the strategy, and the scripts.

The best salespeople know when they need the autonomy to go off script, and this allows them to produce results when and where the plan grinds up against an unforgiving and unrelenting reality. Sometimes what usually works doesn’t work.

Producing results by acting with autonomy provides the most effective salespeople with even more autonomy to work in way that allows them to produce out-sized results. The autonomy that allows high-performing salespeople the freedom to color outside the lines also makes it appear is if they are able to ignore the science, including the sales process, the scripts, and fundamentals that new salespeople are taught and trained to follow. But this isn’t true; they are mostly in line with what works until is doesn’t. And much of what they do is eventually implemented as best practices.

If you are this salesperson, you identify with what I have just written. If you are this salesperson’s sales manager, then you know how difficult this autonomy makes your job when salespeople who are not practiced enough in the art decide that their being more effective means that they should copy what they see from the autonomous salesperson and forget the science.

Striking a Balance

It is difficult to build a large and effective sales force by hiring salespeople and allowing each of them to pursue the outcome in whatever manner they wish. Jim’s caller is more than likely and entry-level telemarketing salesperson that has been trained to follow a script. Allowing salespeople in this position to do more than follow the script would produce poor results, a small series of disasters, and angry customers—if the salespeople were creative enough to come up with anything to say at all.

But in larger, more complex sales, effectiveness is often built on the salesperson’s resourcefulness, their initiative, and their ability to discover some way to advance the sale—especially when it goes off the sales process roadmap.

In the case of Jim’s energy company, you can’t afford to hire the kind of salespeople who can easily go off the script. Very few would do well off the script, and if they were identified, they’d quickly find their way into a role where they could exercise their abilities to achieve better outcomes (which is not at all to say that we shouldn’t be trying to help all salespeople bridge this gap!)

In the case of larger, more complex sales, you can’t afford not to hire people that aren’t as skilled in the art as well as they are the science of sales. The autonomy that allows the exercising of the art is what is needed to advance deals. And you can’t afford not to have a training, a coaching, and a development program that helps to build the underlying attributes that allows the salespeople to learn to work autonomously and to think creatively about what they need to do to win.


Sales effectiveness is a tricky blend of autonomy and discipline. It is a combination of art and science, and effectiveness means you need to when to exercise each. Effectiveness is striking the right balance. It is training, coaching, and developing salespeople to bridge the gap from science alone to art and science, autonomy and discipline.


1. Do we in sales spend too little time working to teach, train, and coach new salespeople the science, believing instead that effectiveness is only an art that some people are lucky enough to have been born to create?

2. Do those of us in sales spend too much time teaching, training, and coaching highly skilled and effective salespeople to work within the confines of a sales process, even when they may be able to move a deal forward by working creatively and autonomously?

3. How do we effectively manage the balance between art and science, autonomy and discipline?

Read my interview with Tom Peters (Part One and Part Two).

Read my Blogs.com featured guest post on the Top Ten Sales blogs.

Read my monthly post on Sales Bloggers Union.

Get The Sales Blog iPhone App to read The Sales Blog and Twitter Feed on your iPhone.

Filed under: Sales 3.0

Anthony Iannarino Head Shot

Follow me on your favorite social networks:

Share this page with your network